What's the Deal with Grass-Fed Beef?
It seems that most people nowadays have heard something about grass-fed beef. A couple decades ago, it used to be somewhat of a rarity to find a grass-fed producer. But nowadays, you can walk into just about any grocery store and find grass-fed beef. This trendy commodity has received an array of conflicting claims....super healthy, too tough, good for the environment, bad for the environment, etc. It can be quite overwhelming as a consumer to know what’s worth listening to and what isn’t.
To tackle this food war, we need to understand how the beef industry actually works. Most beef cattle, whether “grass-fed” or not, begin their life on a ranch or farm that sells the calf when it reaches weaning age, which can vary from 2-8 months of age. These calves typically live on rangeland pasture and are by default grass-fed. After weaning, the calf will usually go to another operation for weight gain until they reach 12 months of age. Then, for the final 4-6 months, the calf is again sold to a feedlot operation, which is often owned by a meatpacking conglomerate. In fact, about 85% of the nation’s feedlot cattle are slaughtered by only four companies: Cargill, Tyson, JBS (Brazil-based), and National Beef.
That’s right, 85% of our beef comes from only four companies.
So, most cattle originate from grassland on thousands of different farms, but it isn’t long before they are sucked into the vortex of the industrial food system. As with most industrial systems, speed and money become the main objectives.
This focus, while ignoring the natural characteristics of cattle, is what makes conventional beef so problematic for people seeking a healthy diet. In order to fatten cattle as quickly as possible, and to make use of the nation’s massive subsidized grain supply, feedlot cattle are fed a high energy ration that is largely corn. The problem? Cattle have a four-compartment stomach with a specific set of bacteria to thrive on 100% grass. Feeding grain increases the stomach’s acidity and therefore bacterial composition of the cow’s stomach, creating greater risk of E. coli outbreak, liver abscesses, and a much higher ratio of unhealthy fatty acids (Julius Ruechel, Grass-Fed Cattle).
To combat the ill-effects of feeding grain to cattle, antibiotics come to the rescue. I know we’ve been hearing about antibiotics in meat for a while, but the industry isn’t making any progress. Most feedlots still routinely use antibiotics that are medically important to humans, even when the animals aren’t sick! The yearly amount of antibiotics used in the cattle industry, measured in millions of pounds, isn’t far from the yearly amount used for human medicine. Antibiotic resistance from meat is considered one of the greatest current threats to our health.
For the beef industry, antibiotics are necessary not only because of grain, but because of the living conditions in feedlots. These feedlots have up to 100,000 head of cattle in one place. Granted, the cattle are divided into smaller pens, but with 100 cattle in a pen, the manure, dust, mud, and stress are a long way from the pasture where they were first born.
Feedlot in California
Is it any wonder that you often hear doctors say we shouldn’t eat too much beef?
Well thankfully, grass-fed beef production has surged among small farmers. However, in typical fashion, larger companies, aware of its growing popularity, have sought to get a grass-fed label in front of consumers at the grocery store. Don’t assume the grass-fed meat you see comes from the farmer down the street...around 75% of grass-fed beef in U.S. grocery stores is imported.(1) Also, I recently read a study that busted “antibiotic-free” meat for having antibiotic residues.(2) Moreover, without any definition, “grass-fed” can mean many different things. Was the animal eating grass most of its life, but later eating grain? Even a small amount of grain alters the nutritional benefit of your beef. You really cannot know the story behind your food unless you seek the farmer.
Glenview Acres Grass-Fed Cattle
Most farmers offering local beef still feed grain, believing that the grain is necessary for good-tasting beef. Without proper management, this is true. Most cattle are on poor pasture that could not possibly produce good-tasting beef, so the grain is necessary to compensate for the shortfall in management. So how do we raise your beef at Glenview Acres that results in tender, flavorful taste with only grass?
We mimic the historic behavior of herbivores. Think of the millions of bison that once roamed the great plains. The bison stayed in a tight mass due to the pressure of wolves. As a massive pack, the bison would not stay in one spot for days at a time, but would eat their meal of grass and then move to another spot. Any grass not consumed was trampled into the ground as fertilizer, along with their dung and urine. By this constant process of mobbing together and moving, the bison could have new grass every day and fertilize what they left behind.
How do we mimic this behavior with modern cattle and private property boundaries? Well, we don’t have wolves, but we do have electric fencing. With portable electric fencing, we fence in an area of grass that gives the cattle enough to eat for about one day. The cattle select their favorite morsels, deposit their fertilizer, and then move on, providing a rest period of roughly one month for the grass. Rest is most important! Without this rest period, the cattle would continue to eat the grass into the ground, stripping any incentive for the grass to regrow, and exposing the cattle to fecal parasites, which live close to the ground.
The benefits of this daily move to a new area are far-reaching, benefiting the animals, land, and our health. We’ve already hinted at the benefits to the animals. Keeping the animals moving in high-quality pasture provides the healthiest living conditions and diet.
The grassland greatly benefits from the cattle’s periodic mowing, because once the grass is pruned, a proportion of the roots die, leaving organic matter, along with the evenly dispersed manure. Moreover, the permanent grassland provides a protective blanket to the soil...healthy soil likes to be covered by living plants that pull carbon from the air and store it underground. Contrast this to the millions of acres used to unnecessarily grow corn, assaulted by excessive tillage, chemicals, and synthetic fertilizers...all of which, coincidentally, are necessary for veggie burgers. Anyway, we will save the environmental discussion of beef for another post! For now, it is good to recognize that cattle and grass were made to have a symbiotic relationship.
The final benefit is what we ultimately consume--nutrient dense, clean beef. The avoidance of antibiotics, hormones, and whatever else ends up in the beef is reason enough, but many studies are showing outstanding nutrition from grass-fed beef.
The balance of omega 6 to omega 3 fatty acids is one such benefit. A healthy human diet should have one to four times more omega 6 acids than omega 3, but the typical American eats 11 to 30 times more omega 6! This is one hypothesis for our significant levels of inflammatory disorders. Too often it seems that healthy eating is framed in terms of the big fears like cancer and heart disease, but these more subtle factors like fat quality and inflammation are just as important! Grass-fed beef contains double the omega 3 as conventional beef. Omega 3 is also an important brain fat for children’s mental development.
Grass-fed beef also contains 3-5 times more CLA (conjugated linoleic acid), another healthy fat which prevents cancer. Indeed, it is one of the few animal nutrients that fights cancer. For women, there has been a direct correlation between higher CLA and lower breast cancer. CLA can only be obtained when the cattle eat fresh leafy green plants. Not hay, not silage, and definitely not grain, which devastates CLA. But some “grass-fed” beef receives the majority of their diet from these unhelpful processed forms of grass. Yet another reason to know exactly how your grass-fed beef is raised!
Finally, grass-fed beef has elevated levels of vitamins--up to four times more vitamin E and A, important antioxidants that are deficient in most Americans. Of course, you could just take a supplemental vitamin instead, right? But research show that vitamins from animal sources are more available to our bodies than pill sources. Since vitamins A, D, E, and K are fat-soluble, they are best absorbed with a healthy source of fat.
All of these agents (omega 3’s, CLA’s, beta-carotene, and vitamins) work in overlapping ways for the same purpose: to prevent inflammation and disease, and to promote healthy cells.
“Grass-fed” labels are easy to find, but you have to investigate what’s behind the label. Isn’t it amazing...our health, the land, and the cattle themselves all greatly benefit when we honor their amazing uniqueness...that is, to turn grass, which is totally unpalatable to us, into a nutrient dense superfood.
(1) (https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2019-05-23/most-grass-fed-beef-labeled-product-of-u-s-a-is-imported )